Muriel's Wedding (1994)

D: P.J. Hogan
S: Toni Colette, Bill Hunter, Rachel Griffiths.

The distance between product and package on this smash hit must give pause to anyone interested in selling (or buying) motion pictures. What was brilliantly marketed as a standard-issue feel-good comedy (cashing in on the earlier International success of Strictly Ballroom) turns out to be an interestingly modulated meditation on issues surrounding peer culture and personal identity set against a quirky Australian backdrop. It seems to be a story of an ugly fat girl who discovers herself through singing Abba songs and thumbing her nose at her cliquish school friends and eventually finds herself a husband as she's always dreamed. But there's a lot more to it than that, both in terms of plot and in the manner in which it renders its cinematic world as a mixture of self-induced fantasy and surreal reality.

Australian films about dysfunctional characters have been many and varied over time, including, in recent years Bad Boy Bubby, Sweetie, Mr. Reliable, and even the Mad Max trilogy. Muriel's Wedding posits the same kind of sociological and psychological disorder which defines the world of these films, but suggests a solution in the form of the emotional independence which Muriel must develop in the course of the film. Her family is an often frighteningly unfunny collection of miscreants who nonetheless inspire occasional laughter (and pity), her home town is a bleak and deadening place which is imagistically familiar and emotionally resonant (even though it is named Porpoise Spit), and the combination of the shockingly real and the defiantly unreal results in a constant shifting of tone which keeps the viewer on their toes or alienates them completely.

Muriel's path from a life of predetermined social roles to one of a fully realised sense of herself is both convincing and fantastical, a difficult feat for any director, but one which Hogan manages with apparent ease. It eventually involves you in the real human drama while presenting a bevy of damaged personalities and a twisted world which can only inspire nervous laughter or repulsion. But Hogan manages to escape the quicksand of weirdness which sucked Jane Campion's Sweetie into the realms of unwatchability by virtue of some simple comic slapstick, caricature and enjoyable musical interludes, and this is the material which filled out the trailer for the movie.

It's not that it's a matter of deception. It is still a funny film which does make you feel at least relatively good by the end. But its aims and ambitions are far above the standard romantic comedy (including, interestingly, Strictly Ballroom). The stylistic schizophrenia complements the story of self-delusion and realisation which is played out on screen. The wedding itself is a marriage of convenience with a South African swimmer eager to beat immigration laws, and though Muriel enters into it with some romantic expectations, by the time she comes out the other side with a separation she has realised both the value of romance and its place in her life. The wedding then becomes a symbol of self-discovery rather than of the cementing of social status it usually represents, and romance comes to occupy the most chillingly ambiguous position it has occupied since the climax of The Graduate.

Performances are good all round, featuring plenty of the now familiar sweaty Australian character actors and showcasing Colete in the lead in a likable and convincing turn as Muriel. The film on the whole provides enough entertainment to keep the audience happy and enough discursive material to make it worth their while. It is far from what you might expect given the trailer, but not all that surprising considering the recent output of Australian cinema on the whole. Be warned though: it may be difficult to know just when to laugh and when not to, and not everyone will find it tasteful.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.